Casual Companions: Sidekicks

By Becky Waxman

         

In a past editorial I discussed games that show character growth through a focus on the protagonist's personality, occupation, and specific knowledge or skills. Now it's time to focus on other types of characters who enliven game stories -- the protagonist's companions.

Companions are different than the typical non-player characters (NPCs) encountered in story-based games. Most of the NPCs that the hero or heroine encounters, for instance, are defined by their occupation or function -- a town's innkeeper, a ship's captain or a castle's guard -- and these NPCs fade from the story right after giving a fetch quest or participating in a conversation.

Companions, on the other hand, travel with the protagonist, or they show up repeatedly at various important points in the story. Since they are there over the long haul, the gamer has time to become acquainted with a companion's background and personality quirks. The ongoing relationship between companion and hero/heroine is a vital part of the story.

Casual game companions tend to fall into three categories -- sidekicks, mentors and teams. This editorial will describe a sidekick's various roles and then provide examples of casual adventures and Interactive Hidden Object Games (IHOGs) that illustrate them. Later editorials will focus on mentors and teams.

*Note: I'm aware that many gamers partner with their children to play IHOGs. I've put an asterisk in front of each game that is more appropriate for teens and up, rather than young children. Further note -- all the games below feature a point-and-click interface and use a first person perspective.

 

Sidekicks

A sidekick is a constant companion -- present for the bulk of the story/game -- and he or she is (or at least begins as) a subordinate. The protagonist hires the sidekick or befriends him and then lets him tag along. The sidekick provides more situational responses and more dialogs -- the gamer becomes increasingly aware of a gradually developing relationship.

A sidekick bolsters, teases, reassures, or criticizes, making the protagonist look good (or the opposite). The sidekick's lack of understanding or skill can emphasize (in contrast) the protagonist's knowledge and talent. Or, alternatively, the sidekick supplements the protagonist's skill set -- for example, the protagonist's brains are augmented by the sidekick's brawn. The protagonist usually performs the key actions in the game -- solving the puzzles, talking to other characters, using the inventory items -- while the sidekick watches, comments, or gives hints. (A "sidekick" who does nothing EXCEPT give hints isn't a true sidekick -- she's just a hint system with a face.)

Sidekicks often function as the plot foil -- the person to whom explanations are given. They sometimes come to the rescue when the hero/heroine has bitten off more than s/he can chew. Occasionally, sidekicks are actually more competent than the protagonist -- hiding their skills until late in the story, or subordinating themselves because they care about the protagonist.

 

Dr. John Watson -- Faithful Friend

*Sherlock Holmes and the Hound of the Baskervilles

The most famous sidekick in English literature, Arthur Conan Doyle's Dr. Watson appears in several recent adventure and casual games, many of them (like this one) by adventure game developer Frogwares. Holmes and Watson are so well known that their relationship is almost a given. Holmes -- the superior mind, the master at solving abstruse mysteries. Watson -- the companion supporting Holmes, the chronicler of his exploits, and the poser of orthodox questions that Holmes answers with brilliant out-of-the-box responses. Watson humanizes the terrifyingly cerebral Holmes. He deals generously with people they encounter and tries to keep the master detective from self-destructing between cases.

In this casual Hound of the Baskervilles game, Watson is a proper Victorian era gentleman donning a brown suit and sporting a genial expression and bushy mustache. The game diverges from the novel almost immediately, dragging Holmes and Watson out of everyday surroundings and into the realm of supernatural abilities and time travel.

Environments in this IHOG are lavishly detailed, eerily lit, and (after traveling in time) often blood-splattered. An interactive map eliminates much of the back-and-forthing required by the complex investigation. Puzzles include inventory challenges, a wide variety of mini-games, and using supernatural abilities. Hidden Objects (HO) screens contain Find Lists with occasional multiples of the same item thrown in.

The characters in this game are well defined (and well voiced during the many cut scenes), and a third character -- Henry Baskerville -- is so constant a presence that he almost becomes a second sidekick. The gameplay itself is curiously anonymous. From what I could tell, it's actually Watson who is applying inventory items, finding objects, and solving the puzzles in this game -- an unusually active role for a sidekick. The Baskerville medallion that bestows special powers (strength, perception, telekinesis, for example) can be used by any of the three main characters, depending on the circumstances.

We are familiar with Watson and Holmes parked squarely in the middle of logic and rationality -- and many fans of the series prefer them there. Still, I found it surprisingly enjoyable to see the famous detective and his adaptable sidekick venturing out of their usual intellectual comfort zone.

 

Captain Salvatore Ortiz -- Sarcasm for Hire

Lost Secrets: Bermuda Triangle

Rachel Broadview is a research librarian at Boston College, when she stumbles across a reference to an ancestor and a shipwreck in the Bermuda Triangle. Curious to learn more, she travels to Pequod Key. Hiring Captain Salvatore Ortiz, a handsome but down-on-his-luck expedition guide, she goes SCUBA diving in a search for the remains of the good ship Abigail Anne and any evidence that Rachel's ancestor was on board.

The environments in this traditional Hidden Object Game are exotic in a naturalistic style. Gameplay itself comprises mostly standard HO screens with a Find List. (The game lacks inventory challenges.) A handful of mini-games related to seafloor searching add variety.

Setting this game apart is the witty banter and the growing relationship between the geeky librarian and the hunky captain (the game is unvoiced). Captain Ortiz usually deals with clueless clients and beautiful, admiring women. He is at first confused when Rachel is neither. He also assumes, mistakenly, that he knows everything that's going on in Pequod Key.

By game's end with the "big reveal," Captain Salvatore's character is ambivalent enough that I was holding my breath, waiting to see if he was going to turn out to be a hero...or a creep.

 

Felly -- Trusty Subordinate

Elementals -- The Magic Key

This unusual IHOG is set in the land of Eiron, the brightly animated, cartoon-like home to the elementals -- spirits of water, fire, earth, energy, air, and primordial nature. You assume the role of Albert, an apprentice wizard at the Academy who sets off on a quest to reassemble the Great Key of Eiron and rescue his sister, who has been kidnapped by the evil Sibelius.

Albert's sidekick is his valet Felly. Felly is a creature with purple skin, large green eyes and a monocle. He offers advice, gives hints, and suggests various ways to approach the fantasy creatures populating the game. He addresses Albert as "Sir," but also gently pokes fun at him. The game isn't voiced, but the characters are distinguished by their personalities -- Albert is eager to take on new challenges, Felly is polite and rather protective, and Sibelius is smug and sneering.

HO challenges are sometimes based on shapes and other times are in the "find multiple similar items" category. These are supplemented by frequent inventory challenges. The game also contains a card game similar to Solitaire and a series of board game challenges that increase in complexity as skills are added to Albert's repertoire (after the initial tutorial, the card and board game challenges can be skipped).

As Elementals progresses, it becomes apparent that Felly either has greater knowledge or more power than he is prepared to admit. The enchanting visuals and mysterious orchestral music create a picturesque, fantastical atmosphere as the duo confronts monsters, villains, and victims in Eiron's magical universe.

 

Marbles -- Talented Monkey

Escape from Thunder Island

Rita James, famed aviator, flies to South America in search of her father, who has disappeared while exploring the Lost City of Zenadoo. With Rita are her co-pilot Sebastian, who is good with airplanes, and her monkey Marbles, who is good at everything else. The game begins with a Roaring Twenties era newsreel, and includes tongue-in-cheek dramatic narration, a particularly amusing story element. Thunder Island is the first in a series created by Big Finish Games, whose developers gave us the Tex Murphy adventure series.

Rita cuts her way into a naturalistically rendered (though slightly blurry) tropical rainforest littered with ominous stone ruins. She is confident that her famous luck will hold. When danger arises, Rita closes her eyes and hopes for the best, later marveling at her miraculous escapes. The brushes with death occur in well voiced, graphic-novel-like cut scenes, in which Marbles (who looks piratical because of a black eye patch) demonstrates his quick wits and exemplary reflexes.

Rita's comments are sassy and humorous and contain historical and pop culture references. Marbles doesn't speak, though he makes expressive noises. (He is reminiscent of Gromit from the Wallace & Gromit claymation films.)

This IHOG provides frequent inventory challenges, plus mini-game-like puzzles that often involve sequencing, as Rita and Marbles navigate their way through ruins, forests, and waterways. It also features some tough jig-saw-puzzle-like challenges. HO screens contain a Find List, and include certain items that must be assembled before they can be clicked on.

(Though most of this game is appropriate for children, there are some encounters with evil demon-like creatures which may be too intense for very young children.)

 

Igor -- Theoretically Immortal

The Mystery of the Crystal Portal -- Beyond the Horizon

A sequel to the original The Mystery of the Crystal Portal game, Beyond the Horizon opens as the heroine, Nicole Rankwist, arrives in Atlantis. Igor, a hunched-over homunculus wearing tattered black robes, eagerly greets her. Though he physically resembles the Igor character in Young Frankenstein, this Igor's personality is different -- he is aware of his odd appearance and is timid and obsequious. He is thrilled to be chosen to accompany a lively, lovely young woman on her travels.

Beyond the Horizon is an IHOG with splendid, photorealistic graphics and surreal locations. It features a variety of mini-games, but most of the gameplay consists of HOs, which are identified via picture icons. The icons are arranged in a series of wheels, and the wheels are often interdependent -- you can't "solve" one wheel until you find all the objects in another wheel. The already-tough difficulty level is heightened by the randomness of the icons (an example -- you must find a horned skull, a lizard, mushrooms, and a cat in order to pick up a stone hammer). The Hint button recharges slowly.

Despite occasional frustrations with the gameplay, I found that this game provided an unusually amusing contrast between the personalities of protagonist and sidekick. (The game is not voiced.) Nicole is sometimes distracted by the fantastical surroundings, unusual objects, and odd characters that she meets. Igor stays focused. Nicole likes to "wing it" and hope for the best. Igor would rather understand what's going on and figure out what actually works. He politely contradicts Nicole when her decisions are illogical, or when her ideas are ridiculously dangerous. Dialogs are well written, and occasionally grant Igor a scene stealing one-liner.

 

Boar -- Amiable Slacker

*The Jolly Gang's Misadventures in Africa

The cartoon comedy sidekick is a standard companion type that makes relatively rare appearances in casual games. The best recent example may be Boar from the ongoing Jolly Gang saga.

The good news: Boar is a talented tinkerer when it comes to machines and gadgets. The bad news: he's a slacker and a wimp, so he doesn't bother to show up until partway through the game. When he does accompany the intrepid protagonist -- Moxxie -- on the trip to Africa, he contributes by fixing things and by providing surprisingly sensible ideas.

Boar and Moxxie look like giant bugs. You can tell them apart because Boar wears blue overalls, whereas Moxxie's outfit bares her midriff. At first I thought both characters were armless (hey, Rayman doesn't seem to miss attached appendages). But they do have very, very skinny arms. There's a third Jolly character -- Shaggy -- who mostly appears as a miniature image in some of the environments. I suppose he is there in spirit.

Though sometimes helpful, Boar is frequently overwhelmed, tied up, unconscious, and terrified. This means that Moxxie must rescue and revive him. (An imperiled sidekick requiring rescue is a common drama-enhancing plot device.)

This Hidden Object Adventure Game (HOAG) has dialog that is less snarky and spicy than that of the Gang's previous game -- The Jolly Gang's Spooky Adventure. The humor is still edgy, but more sophisticated than in the previous game. (Wait -- did I just call this game sophisticated?) The graphics are cartoon-like, with a primitive charm. The story advances through graphic novel panels.

The characters' high-pitched voices aren't in English, but rather in a rapid-fire language supplemented by English subtitles. This approach works well with dialog that is out-of-the-box anyway. The English translation is competent, without too many items confused. (Once Boar was labeled as a board -- intentionally, I presume.)

Misadventures in Africa leans toward a higher difficulty than the typical casual game and I resorted to the Hint button often. Challenges are on the wacky side and include using inventory items, interpreting symbols and codes, and playing mini-games. You can elect to make the game easier or harder by choosing to have the game list the items available in each location (or not). The difficulty level can be adjusted at any time.

Of all the games I played for this editorial, this one had me grinning and shaking my head the most. It's outlandish and clever. I hope we see more of these dysfunctional characters in a hinted-at sequel.

 

Two's Company

Having played many casual games where the hero/heroine goes solo except for encounters with strangers along the way, I find character interaction more satisfying with a sidekick. I'd rather have the company of a character who I can get to know well, rather than twenty different characters who spout four or five lines of dialog and then disappear.

Some of the reasons: a consistent relationship between a protagonist and sidekick inevitably reveals more facets of personality, as the companions encounter conflicts on their journey and rub off one another's "rough edges." In these stories, there's simply more time spent illustrating the character strengths, foibles, and typical reactions. Dialog between characters is more personable and spontaneous than, for instance, reading the heroine's thoughts in a diary (a diary is frequently a substitute for a constant companion in casual games). And finally, it may be human nature to care more about the protagonist while witnessing exchanges that show that someone else cares too.

A quick word about voiceovers (or the lack thereof). Games that lack voiceovers must rely much more on the game's writer, because the quality of the characterizations relies entirely on the unspoken word. Characters who look different, act differently, and perform different functions should NOT have dialogs that are virtually interchangeable. It's much easier to distinguish and identify personality if the game contains voiceovers -- a good voiceover artist can evoke personality despite generic dialog writing. Of course, dull voiceovers can make the characters even less appealing than they would be if they were left silent.

 

Coming up Next

Look to this space to see more discussion of casual games and companionship. Next up: Casual Companions -- Mentors.

**Note: some of the ideas for this article were influenced by Character Development and Storytelling for Games, a book by Lee Sheldon.

 

 

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